The Australian Minister for the Environment, Peter Garrett, has released a draft Threat Abatement Plan (TAP) for cane toads. It is available for comment for the next three months. I spoke about the plan at the Caring for the Kimberley forum in Kununurra last Friday, to mixed response.
One member of the Kimberley ToadBusters Group put it this way, using the threat abatement plan acronym: "You are turning off the TAP, with this TAP"*. He was fearful, as were most members of the community group that has disposed of over half a million toads in the past six years, that the threat abatement plan would lead to reduced funding for toad busting.
The TAP does indeed recommend that funding for toad busting (physically removing toad) should not be a priority. To date, there is no hard evidence that it has significantly slowed the invasion front, despite over a million hours of volunteer time. The $1.5 million spent by the Federal Government on toad busting is only a small portion of the total, which has come from volunteers, charities, sponsorship and the State and Territory governments.
The TAP also recommends that research into a "silver bullet"-type of solution to the toad problem not be further pursued. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent in efforts to find a killer virus of toads, to genetically manipulate a virus to stop them morphing from tadpole to toad or to stop them having female offspring - none with any prospect of application.
The threat abatement plan is derived from a good hard look at the impact of toads on the Australian environment. Eight threatened "ecological communities" are in toad territory but none are judged further threatened by toads. Eight species or genera have been shown to be highly impacted by toads but only one of these, the Northern Quoll, is judged to be likely to be further threatened by toads - indeed, it may be driven to extinction. The plan also points out the importance of islands for biodiversity protection.
This hard analysis is frustrating to many people, especially those seeing death of animals as the toads move across the landscape. Volunteers put in many hours of hard work and lots of sweat trying to slow the toad front. On the other hand, plans like this should rely on peer-reviewed science as much as possible. Policy needs to be evidence-based.
One of the most controversial topics discussed was whether toad "busting" had slowed the invasion front. Dr. Ben Phillips gave an excellent talk on a model he has developed for trying to answer the question ("excellent" in terms of talks on ecological models translates as no one actually snored during the talk - it's tedious stuff but Ben does it well). Unfortunately, he cant yet come to a conclusion because the half million data points from the Kimberley Toad Busters need to be entered. It looked to me that if anyone wanted to argue the conclusion in the TAP, here was a perfect opportunity. It might mean less hours in the field or focusing more on data analysis than other projects, but why not answer the challenge during the three month comment period?
Another challenge issued at the forum was by opening speaker Jeremy Russell-Smith who gave an excellent talk on fire management in northern Australia, probably the greatest legacy of the Tropical Savannahs CRC. Jeremy said that biodiversity monitoring in the Kimberley was way behind that of the Northern Territory where hundreds of sites were regularly monitoring in detail - with quite depressing results for northern small mammals. The decline in northern mammals, which precedes the toad is a cause for great concern. It occurred to me that groups like the Kimberley Toad Busters should widen their activities to more of a "Biodiversity Brigade". This group has already got a massive community swell, including the local indigenous population, infrastructure like vehicles and newsletters and websites and an excellent track record in the field (I don't think they've had a single serious injury in a million hours volunteer time). Even if toad busting is not the major focus in the future, it would be a pity if the skills and enthusiasm of groups like KTB fell away.
* I was engaged by the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts to assist in preparation of the draft Threat Abatement Plan, but am not a member of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee which is responsible for advice to the Minister.
Posted by Tony Peacock, founder of 'Feral Thoughts'